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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.

Lara’s 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule

Dear readers, the TCM Classic Film Festival is just over a week away. Like other festival attendees, I have been busy creating my festival itinerary, doing my yearly grumble over time slot conflicts, and comparing overlaps with my friends’ schedules. I thought I’d share with you what I have so far, and explain for those new followers the way the festival works.

The TCM Classic Film Festival is designed for passholders. This means that everyone possessing a pass is entitled to stand in line for festival films, and, if the passholder gets in line early enough, be admitted to screenings. This does not mean, however, that the passholder is guaranteed a seat.

Let’s get creative for a minute, and explain the festival through the eyes of the average festivalgoer. (This is inspired by one of my favorite videos from the WWII homefront. Check out this system of explaining point rations.)

Let’s create a hypothetical TCM passholder–we’ll name her Joan (a disproportionately common name among classic Hollywood actresses, it seems). Joan decided to go for the Classic Pass this year, and paid her $649 to TCM for it. With the Classic Pass, she is entitled to all screenings except the Opening Night movie (When Harry Met Sally this year). That event is reserved for Essential and Spotlight passholders only. Those pass levels are significantly more expensive, and Joan wasn’t interested enough in When Harry Met Sally to pay the extra money to see it. She is also given admission to Club TCM, which will allow her to experience any and all panel discussions that she wants.

Her hypothetical friend Clark decides to splurge on the Spotlight Pass this year. He wants to have the experience of seeing the celebrity arrivals, and going to the fancy opening night party. With his Spotlight Pass, which is nearly $1,500 more expensive than Joan’s pass, he will get these experiences and have a memorable Hollywood vacation that encompasses more than just movies.

Joan’s Classic Pass arrives in the mail about a month before the festival. Once she gets to Los Angeles on Monday night (the festival starts on Thursday, and most people arrive a few days early to get settled), she does some sightseeing of classic film star homes, hikes up to the Hollywood sign, and takes the TCM Festival-sponsored bus tour that takes her around to various places in the city important to film history.

Once Thursday rolls around, she’s ready for her movies. She and Clark have compared schedules, and while Clark is seeing When Harry Met Sally on Thursday night, Joan will see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the Egyptian, followed by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. First, though, Joan decides to watch the celebrity arrivals for When Harry Met Sally. She is allowed access to the bleachers with her Classic Pass, but only Spotlight and Essential festivalgoers are allowed on the red carpet. She sees Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan arrive, waves to her friend Clark who is on the red carpet right beside Angie Dickinson, then she decides to go get in line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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Shirley Jones waves to the bleachers before the opening night showing of Oklahoma! in 2015.

This is where it gets interesting. Because she has a Classic Pass, she must arrive at the movie at least an hour before showtime in order to secure her place in line and get a decent line number. If a festivalgoer at the Classic Pass level arrives too late, she risks the movie “selling out” and then she’s out of luck.

Line numbers are handed out in order for the festivalgoers to maintain their place in line while they leave to get a cup of coffee, a quick sandwich, or just a quick rest. Spotlight passholders are let in first, and if the Classic passholder is not back in line by the time the movie begins letting in, their place in line is forfeited and they risk not seeing the movie. This is an absolutely essential part of the festival experience that I think is not terribly well publicized, so if you are planning to go, keep this in mind.

Joan wants to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg next, but she knows that she’s not going to have enough time between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to get a decent line number. She wants to see Umbrellas of Cherbourg enough that she’s willing to sacrifice the ending of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in order to see it. Clark will be going to the opening night party after he is finished with When Harry Met Sally, but if he had been in the same situation as Joan, he would not have had to worry about missing the end of the movie. He is all but guaranteed entry to anything he wants to see, regardless of when he gets in line.

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Some very savvy festivalgoers with their line numbers.

This is really the main difference between the pass levels. Spotlight passholders are paying for convenience and paying to have a relaxed, memorable vacation along with their movies. Classic passholders are really there for the movies, and the vacation part of it is secondary.

Also, you will notice that there is a marked hierarchy in the festival operations, which is understandable given the price differences. However, $649 is still a lot of money to pay, and many hardcore TCM fans, especially those in the key TCM demographic (the 60% of TCM viewers under 40–which may come as a surprise) are priced out of the festival altogether. Given the rising cost of living in urban America, and with millennials barely able to make rent, most of TCM’s most devoted fans, sadly, cannot attend. Backlots attends with media credentials, so while I am indeed a millennial in TCM’s key demographic, for the past 7 years I have not had to face this problem myself. But I recall my first year at the festival, when Backlots was brand new, and I purchased a Classic Pass in order to be able to attend for sure. The pass cost nearly half my monthly salary at the time, and I know that this is the situation for many of my friends to this day.

The media credential that Backlots receives is essentially the Classic Pass, which has always worked perfectly for me. It gives me access to everything I need to fully cover the festival for my readers, and have a great deal of fun along the way. As of right now, my festival schedule looks like this:

THURSDAY NIGHT:

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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I had originally planned to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as well, but it turns out I have a non-festival-related conflict at that time, so I’ll have to skip that one and go straight on to Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This is a film that I have nearly committed to memory, but have never seen on the big screen. I’m told it’s a completely different experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing those beautiful bright pastels the way they were meant to be seen.

FRIDAY:

Merrily We Go To Hell

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I’m excited for this one for several reasons. Pre-codes are always some of the most popular offerings at the TCM Festival, so the crowd is sure to be top notch and excited. It is also in one of the smaller theaters (the festival frequently underestimates crowd size for the pre-codes), so if you’re going to the festival and planning to attend this one with me, be sure to get in line VERY early.

The movie is directed by the great Dorothy Arzner, one of the pre-eminent female directors of early Hollywood, and the TCM Festival did right in securing Cari Beauchamp as the presenter for Merrily We Go to Hell. As the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, Beauchamp is the reigning expert on Dorothy Arzner and her role in the development of early Hollywood–and has also established herself as one of the festival’s most beloved veteran presenters. Don’t miss this one.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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One of my all-time favorite silent films, with some of the most unusual and arresting intertitles that I’ve ever seen. It is a masterpiece of characterization and cinematography, following the relationship of a husband and wife, with the conflicting desires of the husband coming between them. It is one of the three movies for which Janet Gaynor received the first Best Actress Oscar, and out of the three, it is indubitably the technical greatest.

Kerry Brougher, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences along with other illustrious titles, will be presenting this movie. It promises to be an interesting presentation, due to Brougher’s work as curator of several film-related retrospectives at the Smithsonian and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, including one on Hitchcock. Sunrise is indeed very Hitchcockian, which may be something I write about during the festival.

Vanity Street

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Another pre-code about a young woman in poverty who commits a crime and falls in love with the policeman who catches her, this one promises to be another crowded theater (it’s showing in the smallest theater of the festival). I may have to leave early from Sunrise to get in line for this one, but the pre-codes are almost always the most satisfying movies of the entire festival. Vanity Street features another Cari Beauchamp introduction, which promises to be very informative especially as it relates to actress Helen Chandler. Despite her work in several well known movies, Chandler’s life was very difficult, with bouts of alcoholism and psychological distress. She never had children, and her ashes still lie unclaimed at Chapel of the Pines.

SATURDAY

Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Alec Guinness plays various members of an aristocratic family, the d’Ascoynes, in this brilliant dark comedy about one d’Ascoyne trying to kill everyone ahead of him for the dukedom. My favorite member of the family: suffragette Lady Agatha d’Ascoyne.

The discussion beforehand will be with Jefferson Mays, a leading television actor who has acted in several notable shows such as I Am the Night and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’ll be curious to see what his relationship to Kind Hearts and Coronets is. TCM frequently secures well known modern day actors for the festival who have a heretofore unknown interest in classic film, so I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Hollywood Home Movies at Club TCM

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This event is always one of the cornerstones of the festival. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brings in previously unseen footage of classic film stars and, with simultaneous conversation with the people close to them, sitting in the front row of Club TCM, this footage is shown to passholders. It’s one of my favorite events, and this year’s footage will include John Huston and Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Jimmy Stewart, and more.

I am very happy that the Classic and Media passes include access to Club TCM. In my view, the events at Club TCM (located in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the site of the first Oscars ceremony) are the soul of the festival, and they are not to be missed. This is where the real learning happens.

It Happened Here

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Kevin Brownlow, film archivist and preservationist extraordinaire, will be receiving the Robert Osborne Award this year for his unparalleled work in preservation and restoration of silent films. It Happened Here is one of Brownlow’s crowning achievements outside of preservation, a film about what might have happened if Hitler had been successful in World War II.

Kevin Brownlow has been exceedingly generous with me in my Marion Davies work, and when I heard that he would be getting the Robert Osborne Award, I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving. When I met him in London several years ago, he spoke very proudly of It Happened Here, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen with Brownlow in attendance.

Indiscreet

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Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman team up for the second time after Notorious, this time directed by Stanley Donen. The plot is quite creative for a 1958 code-era movie, an actress falls in love with a man she believes to be married only to find out that he’s actually single, and she vows to get back at him for misleading her.

Stanley Donen passed away earlier this year, and Indiscreet‘s screening at the festival is a way for TCM to honor him. This movie features another Cari Beauchamp introduction–my choices seem to line up well with her intros this year. In addition to her work on women of early Hollywood, Beauchamp is also an expert on the life and work of Cary Grant, and this article she wrote on Grant and his connection to LSD use in Hollywood is a fascinating read.

SUNDAY

Holiday

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How could I miss this one? One of my favorite Katharine Hepburn movies of all time, and one I find is consistently underrated in her pantheon of greats. Hepburn plays the black sheep of a wealthy family, who wants nothing more than to live a fun and normal life in spite of her stuffy family. Cary Grant, who lives the life she wants, has fallen in love with her much more traditional sister, and when he comes over to meet the family, he starts to fall for her instead.

I have always been impressed with how modern the movie is–in some ways, it reminds me of The Philadelphia Story in its sophistication and quality of writing.

The special guest for this movie is Diane Baker, which should be wonderful. Baker has become a mainstay of the festival, and has always been very approachable and appreciative of the love she receives. I will be interested to hear what she says about Holiday, and what it has meant to her and her career.

Gone With the Wind

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The remainder of my festival, before the closing night party, will be taken up by Gone With the Wind. I have seen the movie on the big screen innumerable times, but this time will be different–it is screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I feel that I can’t miss that.

Prior to the screening, at Club TCM, there will be a panel discussion on the film’s complicated legacy. Indeed, the movie is and has always been complicated, and I’m glad that TCM is offering this discussion for people who may be hesitant to attend the showing due to content that has not aged well and, indeed, was controversial even in 1939. At the panel discussion will be historian Donald Bogle, Mollie Haskell, Jacqueline Stewart, and Stephanie Allain, discussing the issues surrounding the movie and what its status will be in the future.

Closing Night Party

This is our last opportunity to say goodbye to our friends until next year, held at Club TCM. People come from all over the world to attend the festival, and while the digital age has made keeping in touch very easy, many of us count down the days until we can see our TCM friends again. It’s normally very difficult to leave the closing night party, because this means that the festival is officially over, and that countdown to next year begins.

I will be using Twitter quite a lot during the festival, and as usual, will be enabling a live Twitter feed on the blog so that readers may follow along in real time. I usually make a blog post every evening after the events of the day, so keep an eye out for updates.

See you at the festival!

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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!

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.”

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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.

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

Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival–And Lara in Attendance for SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

Dear readers, I have been keeping mum on news about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got confirmation of some news of my own. That confirmation arrived in my inbox two days ago and was made public today…so here I am to let you know that Backlots has press credentials for the TCM Classic Film Festival, and (my own news) that I will be in attendance to introduce the Saturday night screening of Marion Davies’ Show People (1928).

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Each year, the TCM Classic Film Festival brings together classic film fans from around the world, many of whom know each other already, due to the powers of the internet. It often feels like one big family reunion, where everyone speaks the language of classic film–complete with in-depth references to Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-codes, Ann Miller’s hair, and who should have played Ashley in Gone With the Wind. Nowhere else on earth could these conversations occur at the depth at which they do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and for many attendees, meeting others with similar interests is a rare and welcome occasion.

This is Backlots’ 6th year covering the festival. This year will be different, as my appearance at Show People means that I will be a very busy person during TCM Festival week. But I will do my utmost to bring you coverage as I have in all previous years–with a live Twitter feed and a blog post every night as I’m able.

Please stay tuned for more updates as I have them!

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TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap-Up, 2017

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The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close this weekend, and since Sunday night, fond memories and farewells have flooded social media. The photos of fans boarding their planes home, sadly telling their friends they’ll see them next year, tug at our hearts and serve as reminders of what this festival means to so many of us.

In day-to-day life, classic film fans of this caliber often have trouble meeting like-minded people. The chance of meeting a person on the street who can talk at length about the Motion Picture Production Code, the Best Actress Oscar winner for 1950, or the final scene of The Heiress is a slim one at best. “Thank goodness for the internet,” is an oft-repeated phrase among classic film fans. “I thought I was the only one.” At the festival, all of us “only ones” convene, creating what has lovingly been referred to as the “TCM vortex.” Nothing matters except the movies on the screen, and watching them with people who love them too. It’s a world all its own.

This was my 6th festival, my 5th with Backlots as a member of the media. I attended the press conference on Wednesday afternoon, which included TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, programmer Charlie Tabesh, vice president of branding/partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, and general manager Jennifer Dorian. We heard some very positive things from the conference, including word of the wild success of the Fathom Events screenings, which have sold over 2 million tickets so far this year. At the beginning of 2017, TCM partnered with Fathom Events to bring classic movies to the big screen once (and sometimes twice) a month nationwide, often playing at theaters in the AMC chain. From the beginning, I was excited about this partnership, hoping for its success. I’m very glad that it seems to be working out beautifully for all involved.

We also received word that the next free online course through Ball State University will be on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Ball State University partnered with TCM last year for a class on the history of slapstick, and before that for a course on film noir. The classes are always exceedingly popular, and based on the interest in Alfred Hitchcock within the TCM community, I predict that this class will be a great success. If you would like to sign up, here is the place to do it.

TCM does a marvelous job procuring top-notch guests for the festival–this year’s guests included Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison for the opening night screening of In the Heat of the Night, Lee Grant for a discussion of her life and work in Club TCM, Carl and Rob Reiner for a hand/footprint ceremony at (what will always be) Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and celebrity family members Kate MacMurray (Fred MacMurray’s daughter) and Wyatt McCrea (Joel McCrea’s grandson) to be interviewed before movies. At the press conference, I asked if there was any method to their solicitation of festival guests. Charlie Tabesh responded that many guests are very eager to come, and ask on their own accord, while the festival has tried to get other guests for many years, but they’re not able to make it. Age seems to be very much a contributing factor to this–in recent years, the festival has been leaning toward children of stars more than stars themselves, due to the dwindling number of classic Hollywood stars who are still with us, and the physical frailty of those who are.

Among my group of friends, the schedule for this year’s festival was the most anticipated of any year, with such favorites as The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Awful Truth (1937), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Factor in the nitrate screenings of Black Narcissus (1947) and Laura (1944), and it was one of the greatest programs in festival history, from my perspective.

Red-Headed Woman turned out to be one of my biggest festival joys, introduced by Cari Beauchamp, the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Beauchamp is a beloved presenter at the festival, the go-to expert on women in early Hollywood, and the introduction of Red-Headed Woman was a prime example of what I look for in an intro. The TCM Festival crowd is an intelligent one, and most of us know these movies well. Instead of relating plot points or trivia bits, the introduction to Red-Headed Woman focused on backstory and studio politics, and the effect of movies like it (featuring strong, unapologetically sexual women) on the strengthening of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The pre-code era holds a special place in my heart, and an item of particular interest in the introduction was the difference between the way the Hays office (the earlier enforcement arm of the code) and the Breen office (that followed Hays) operated. The Hays office would actually see the movies, while the Breen office would only read the scripts–thus allowing filmmakers to get away with close to anything using costumes and lighting.

Among my favorite things to do in a theater when a classic movie is showing is to glance back at the audience. It gives me an indescribable feeling to see hundreds of people watching a person from 80 years ago, likely someone long gone from this earth, flicker on the screen. That pleasure seems especially meaningful when the movie features Jean Harlow, who died of degenerative kidney disease at the age of 26 at the height of her career, but has remained one of the most alluring stars of any era. Watching the audience watching Harlow seemed to embody what Beauchamp said when introducing the film: “Jean Harlow lives!”

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As for the overall feel of the festival, I noticed a few differences between this one and previous festivals. This year’s staff seemed larger, contributing to a few snags in communication relating to line management. It was a situation that could have easily have been rectified had there been about half the staff. Despite some initial discomfort and a few panicked moments, I did manage to get into everything I wanted and the line team was always gracious and pleasant in the midst of the pressing crowds and general chaos of impatient film fans. I struck up a conversation with a lovely young line staffer at the Chinese Multiplex while I was in line for Born Yesterday, and she knew who Marion Davies was. Instant friend.

I would like to send TCM a huge thank you for the change they made regarding the pre-codes this year. It made me very happy to see that the festival remembered the two sold out showings of Double Harness last year, and made sure to put the pre-codes in the big theaters. This time, instead of selling out in the small Chinese Multiplex theaters, the movies played at the huge Egyptian Theatre–to packed houses, but no turn-aways. The festival’s love for pre-codes was something that I and many others noted in our post-festival wrap-ups last year, and it was clear that they listened.

Thank you, TCM, for another great festival, thanks to all my festival friends for giving me such a beautiful community, and thanks to my readers for following along so diligently. Here’s to next year!

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Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Days 3 and 4–The Nitrate Prints: LAURA (1944) and BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival is coming to a close, and what a weekend it’s been. When I return home tomorrow I will write a wrap-up post summarizing my experience, but I would be remiss if I didn’t write a post today discussing the nitrate prints that festivalgoers were treated to at the Egyptian Theatre these past few days.

Nitrate film stock is known for the shimmering quality it lends to the picture, and for its unique accentuation of line, shadow, and light. It was used in the film industry through 1952, and then due to safety issues owing to its extreme flammability (it holds its own source of oxygen, and keeps burning when thrown in water), it was no longer produced. Many nitrate films were destroyed when the stock went out of production, but we’re lucky that many were also rescued. When one watches a nitrate film, one is essentially watching an “original,” the film equivalent of holding an original photograph. Very few theaters are licensed to show nitrate nowadays, because of the heightened risk of fire. In the Bay Area, where I live, only the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto is equipped to show it.

Going into the festival, one of my most anticipated screenings was Black Narcissus (1947) on nitrate. One of the most beautifully photographed movies of all time, with some of the most vibrant colors we’ve ever seen on film, I knew that it was going to be a magnificent viewing experience. What I was not particularly prepared for, however, was Laura (1944).

I debated whether or not I should go to Laura. It was programmed opposite Twentieth Century, one of my all-time favorites starring one of my all-time favorite actresses, Carole Lombard. It pained me to choose, but ultimately I decided that nitrate needed to take priority.

I’ve seen Laura many times, but was not prepared for what happened when I saw when Gene Tierney onscreen. The nitrate accentuated the lines and shadows of her face, her big, expressive eyes, and the porcelain skin under her jet-black hair. Tierney, whom I consider to be one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the screen, was so exquisite on nitrate that tears fell from my eyes.

I must stop for a moment to discuss the print. I had a discussion with a few people afterward who were distracted by the pops and scratches on the nitrate print, which had come from the Academy as a “for your consideration” copy for the 1945 Academy Awards. The print did pop and some key lines were covered up. For me, that didn’t matter. We were there (at least I was there) to get the visual of the nitrate. Granted, I have seen this movie before and don’t necessarily need to hear the lines, but I came up with this comparison. When you look at an antique, made by a prominent designer who is known for a certain style, you don’t factor in the fact that it might have scratches on it in your analysis of the style. You look at the style in and of itself, and while the scratches might be an inconvenience, it’s really not what you’re there to look at. That’s my view of the nitrate print of Laura. I saw what I was looking for, and the rest came with the territory of looking at an old film.

With Black Narcissus, none of this was an issue. The print was beautiful, the nitrate was beautiful. Black Narcissus is a movie that has sent a chill up my spine since the first time I saw it. The story of British nuns trying to run a convent in the Himalayas, dealing with cultural differences and a dangerously unstable member of their order, the photography is breathtaking, and the ending is, to this day, considered to be one of the scariest moments in the history of British cinema.

One of the standout nitrate moments for me in Black Narcissus were when Deborah Kerr’s character, Sister Clodagh, has a flashback to when she was a young girl in love in her native Ireland.

The sparkling of the sea in the background, combined with the lines in Deborah Kerr’s hair and the serene, muted colors, brought me to tears during this scene.

The frightening penultimate scene of the movie became even scarier, if that’s possible, as the nitrate highlighted the character’s gaunt, red-tinted eyes and sick pallor.

And finally, at the end, the shot of the green leaves as the rain falls on them.

If you have never seen a film on nitrate, you owe it to yourself to find a theater near you that screens nitrate film. Or better yet, come to the TCM Classic Film Festival next year. There are only a select few theaters in the country that have a license to show nitrate, and The Egyptian Theatre’s retrofit to nitrate capabilities means that the TCM Festival will likely be showing nitrate from now on. It is one of the greatest filmgoing experiences you can have.

I’ll wrap up after I return home tomorrow. See you then, and thanks for reading!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: Watching Old Favorites With a Community

We’re in the middle of the TCM Classic Film Festival’s first full day, and during this break I have between screenings, I wanted to talk about what it’s like to watch an established favorite with a community like the one at the TCM Festival. In a prior post, I discussed the fact that I tend toward the old favorites when faced with a screening dilemma, and much of my reasoning for that comes from the sense of community that comes from sitting in a theater and watching something you’ve seen dozens of times.

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Last year, the screening of The More the Merrier proved to be my festival highlight, due to the sheer joy of hearing raucous laughter while Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea were on the screen, and anticipating when that laughter was going to come. I had the same experience this morning with the screening of Born Yesterday (1950). Those loyal readers of Backlots may be familiar with the love I have for Born Yesterday and its messages of freedom through knowledge, and when I arrived at the theater I was thrilled to see that the line to get in was one of the longest I’ve ever seen, extending around the ropes and even necessitating the management to form another line outside. When we were let in, there was barely a single seat left in the theater. I began to look forward to another enthusiastic crowd.

Born Yesterday, and especially Judy Holliday, have always held a bit of a special place in my heart. The combination of physical comedy, topical and progressive subject matter, brilliant and sincere performances, and a witty, dynamic script combine to make a movie that clicked for me at a young age. So much so, in fact, that in 7th grade I chose to do a class report and presentation on Judy Holliday, highlighting clips from Born Yesterday to illustrate my points about her acting ability, including the one below.

(Apologies for the faulty video, but this is the only clip of this scene that seems to exist online, and it’s too good to leave out of this post.)

When this scene came onscreen this morning, the audience went wild, laughing uproariously at Holliday’s card organizing, as well as her mannerisms and quirks that make the scene one of the greatest bits of downplayed physical comedy that I’ve ever seen. When Holliday called out “Gin!” and spread her cards out on the table, in the face of her brash and uncultured boyfriend, the audience clapped loudly.

To hear others appreciating Born Yesterday as I do, and appreciating Judy Holliday as I have for so many years, is a priceless gift of the TCM Classic Film Festival. Rarely in life do we classic film fans get the opportunity to sit in the dark, with our favorite people up on the screen, with nothing but love opposite them in the audience. But once a year at the festival, we can be assured of it.

Thanks for reading, and keep watching this space for more! Here are some photos from some other things that have been going on:

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival - The 50th Anniversary Screening of "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) Red Carpet & Opening Night

Opening night red carpet featuring In the Heat of the Night (1967)

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival - Hand and Footprint Ceremony: Carl and Rob Reiner

Hand/footprint ceremony for Rob Reiner and Carl Reiner, featuring guests Billy Crystal, Tom Bergeron, and Norman Lear alongside TCM network representatives Jennifer Dorian, Ben Mankiewicz, Coleman Breland, Genevieve McGillicuddy, and Charlie Tabesh.

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

At the opening night. Walter Mirisch, Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Norman Jewison, and Lee Grant, with TCM network representatives Ben Mankiewicz, Jennifer Dorian, Charlie Tabesh, Genevieve McGillicuddy, and Coleman Breland.

 

 

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1: 7 Seconds of Bette Davis in JEZEBEL (1938)

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This afternoon, classic film fans from around the country and the world descended upon the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that runs from the Roosevelt Hotel to the Egyptian Theater for the opening of the TCM Classic Film Festival. For much of the day, the street was completely blocked off for the red carpet entrance to the opening night movie, In The Heat of the Night, for which Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison were in attendance. It looked to be a spectacular affair. But for those of us whose passes don’t allow entrance to the opening night movie, there was no shortage of other choices–and I, being a devotee of Bette Davis in general and Jezebel in particular, was glad to see the pre-Civil War story of love and defiance as an option for the festival’s opening night. It was a screening I did not want to miss.

Jezebel has always fascinated me. The story of Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), a rebellious young southern belle in 1852, who defies convention and alienates her companion Pres (Henry Fonda) only to have him leave and return with a new wife, it is a beautifully directed, beautifully costumed movie that plays with the idea of women’s rights long before the women’s rights movement, while still reining itself in with the restrictions of the production code. We see a strong woman who fights for what she wants, but who repents when her companion leaves. Then when he comes back with a new wife, she rebels again, only to give her final repentance at the dramatic ending.

I arrived at the movie relatively late in my classic film life, having somehow missed it until my first year in college, and due to the nuanced and textured performances of Bette Davis and Fay Bainter, I’m rather glad that I came to it late. As I watched Jezebel for the first time, I was able to grasp right away the meticulous and fine acting details that define the movie.

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Jezebel is best-known for the scene in which Julie appears at the Olympus ball in a red dress, in direct defiance of what Pres wants her to do. All unmarried women appear in white, he tells her, but when Julie insinuates that he’s just afraid of having to defend her, he relents and takes her to the ball in the red dress. It is indeed a marvelous scene, filled with discomfort and palpable tension. But what I consider to be the greatest moment in the movie occurs afterward.

Following the dance, Pres leaves Julie, humiliated. A year later, he returns and Julie has repented, appearing to him in a white dress and asking him to forgive her. She kneels down to the floor, her dress flowing around her, and tells him “Pres, I’m kneelin’ to ya.” A few seconds later, Julie finds out that Pres has married during his absence. The woman walks into the room and is introduced as Pres’ new wife from New York. What follows is a phenomenal 7-second performance by Bette Davis. Start the video at 2:31.

Davis immediately transforms from the angelic, saintly creature that was kneeling to Pres on the ground, into a confused, startled person. She starts with a blank stare, almost as if she hadn’t heard what was said. Then, she gets a look on her face that shows comprehension, but a disbelief that he had done it. Leaning forward slightly, she looks for a moment as if she were about to move toward him, but thinks better of it. She looks at Amy, scrutinizing her, looking her up and down, then gets a puzzled look on her face, and turns back to Pres before she says, in shocked disbelief, “Your wife.” This all happens over the span of 7 seconds.

The entire moment is played in the face–except for a small movement of her arms when she is leaning forward. It works due to Davis’ naturally expressive features, and her ability to use them and them alone. These 7 seconds are a testament to Davis’ skill as an actress, and to her ability to work effectively with director William Wyler. By this time, Wyler knew Bette Davis extraordinarily well, onscreen and off. By the time of Jezebel‘s filming, Davis and Wyler were spending a great deal of time together as romantic companions, and Wyler used his knowledge of Davis to direct her to her second Academy Award. Whatever direction Wyler gave her in that moment prompted Davis to create one of the most impressive physical moments of her career.

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Stay tuned for more reports from the TCM Classic Film Festival as it rolls on through the weekend. Tomorrow’s schedule includes screenings of The Maltese Falcon, Born Yesterday, and Red-Headed Woman. Thanks for reading!

TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule Released–How We Pick Movies and Where I’ll Be

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The TCM Classic Film Festival released its full schedule this past week, and social media has been abuzz ever since with attendees announcing their festival picks. Some festivalgoers opt to prioritize screenings of movies new to them, others prefer to see old favorites alongside others who love the film as they do.

It seems to come down to a difference in what attendees hope to get out of the festival. For those who give priority to the “new-to-me” screenings, the TCM Classic Film Festival serves as a pathway to expanded film fluency, an opportunity to close the gaps in their film repertoire, gaps that we all have regardless of our level of knowledge. For those who prefer to put movies they’ve seen before at the top of their list, sometimes movies they’ve seen dozens of times, the festival is a way to bond with other classic film lovers, to visit with those who have a special connection to a particular movie or genre. And, naturally, there are those who consciously combine the two practices.

Historically speaking, I’ve tended to run with the “old favorites” crowd. Over the past 6 years that I’ve attended what is known affectionately as “TCMFF,” I’ve found that the most useful gift that the festival can give me personally, and that I can then give to Backlots’ readers, is a connection with the movies and the people who attend the festival. At last year’s screening of The More the Merrier, for example, I knew about half the audience, and I knew how much they loved the movie. There is a sense of community that comes from that, one that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had gone to see a movie with which I was unfamiliar.

I’m aware that I have a bit of privilege when it comes to picking movies for TCMFF. The San Francisco Bay Area provides easy access to classic movies, and chances are good that a movie shown at TCMFF that I’ve never seen will also play at the Castro or the Roxie at some point, so I can feel comfortable settling in with an old favorite on the big screen. Many attendees don’t have such easy access to classics, and seeing an old favorite on the big screen would be a wasted opportunity to expand their viewing repertoire. One of the beautiful things about TCMFF is that it can be easily customized for the individual attendee–her interests, preferences, and what she wants to get out of the festival as a whole.

With that context in mind, here is my TCMFF schedule:

THURSDAY, APRIL 6

6:30 PM: Jezebel (1938)

9:30 PM: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

FRIDAY, APRIL 7

9:00 AM: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

11:30 AM: Born Yesterday (1950)

2:00 PM: Trivia at the Roosevelt

4:30 PM: So This is Paris (1926)

7:00 PM: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

9:30 PM: Laura (1944)

SATURDAY, APRIL 8

9:00 AM: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

12:00 PM: The Awful Truth (1937)

5:00 PM: Hollywood Home Movies

6:30 PM: Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

9:30 PM: Black Narcissus (1947)

SUNDAY APRIL 9

10:15 AM: The Egg and I (1947)

1:30 PM: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

4:30 PM: Singin’ In the Rain (1952)

8:00 PM: Speedy (1928)

Some notes on my choices:

  • Black Narcissus and Laura are both on nitrate. Nitrate film is rarely shown in theaters today–due to the fragility and flammability of the stock (it has its own source of oxygen, and famously keeps burning when submerged in water), theaters have to have a special license to be able to use the stock in a projection booth. Nitrate is known for the “shimmering” quality it gives the film, and suffice it to say I’m extraordinarily excited to see this on nitrate:

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  • The 9:30 PM slot on Friday is very difficult, as it pits Laura against Twentieth Century (1934) against Cat People (1942). Laura barely ekes out a win over Twentieth Century simply because of the nitrate, but it pains me to abandon Carole Lombard. TCMFF reserves several TBA slots at the end of the festival for movies that overflow, and I’m hoping that Twentieth Century fills one of those spots.
  • While not a movie per se, the Hollywood Home Movies event at Club TCM is always a highlight of the festival for me. In cooperation with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, TCM brings in rare video of the stars at home and on the set, providing glimpses into their lives often narrated by the children or relatives of the people depicted sitting right there on the stage. It’s marvelous.

I’ll keep you posted with any more news. Thanks for reading!