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My 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Diary, Part 1

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This past weekend saw the TCM Classic Film Festival return to Hollywood for its third incarnation. As in past years, the schedule was filled up with well-known “Essentials” and “Discoveries” to sample. The roster was focused on themes, such as “Built By Design: Architecture In Film,” “The Films Of Stanley Donen,” “Deco Design,” “The Legendary Costumes Of Travis Banton,” “Noir Style,” “The Paramount Renaissance, and Universal’s Legacy Of Horror.” The festival opened on the 12th with the world premiere of the 40th anniversary restoration of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. The red carpet was laid out for the many stars in attendance.

However, my festival experience began with The Wolf Man (1941), introduced by make-up artist Rick Baker, whose work on the 2010 remake earned an Oscar. Baker sang the praises of make-up artist Jack Pierce and provided wonderful bits of trivia about the film’s creation. He stayed to watch it because though he’d seen it countless times before, he had never seen it on the big screen, which was a common refrain from many of the attendees I spoke with in how they determined their viewing choices.

Written by Curt Siodmak, in what might be considered a reboot of the creature after Werewolf of London (1935), The Wolf Man tells the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), whose bravery becomes his undoing. When coming to the aid of a young lady attacked by a wolf, the animal bites Larry, and he soon learns the truth of the folk tales. Joseph Valentine’s cinematography is outstanding, especially the scenes shot in the fog-filled darkened forests. Chaney went on to play the character in four more films.

For my second selection of the evening, I unknowingly created a familial double feature with director Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949). The film stars Burt Lancaster, who previously worked with the director on The Killers, stars as Steve Thompson, who is involved with Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), the wife of mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). The two men get into a fight at a nightclub, which is soon revealed to be a ruse to cover their working together on a big score. The story flashes back to Steve’s recent return to Los Angeles and the backstory of the characters is revealed. Criss Cross features a fun pulp story as the viewer awaits the upcoming double cross, which the title hints at. Eddie Muller, Founder and President of the Film Noir Foundation introduced the film, as he would all five of the noir titles for the festival. For a delightful surprise, Bugs Bunny’s “Rackateer Rabbit” screened before the film.

After deciding to skip the morning screenings on Friday, I continued my noir watching with Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) and luckily got to the line to grab ticket #54. I wasn’t happy that my seats were so close and off to the side, but I at least fared better than the people who were turned away because the demand was so great. And that includes people who waited a while in the rain.

Raw Deal finds Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) busting out of jail. His girl Pat (Claire Trevor), who narrates the story, helps drives the getaway car and has them lined up to take a cruise ship to South America, but Joe has other plans first. He’s owed $50,000 by sadistic mobster Rick (Raymond Burr) and plans to collect, but Rick sends men after Joe to kill him. Trying to stay ahead of Rick and the cops, Joe goes to see Ann (Marsha Hunt), a woman who visited him in jail, though I couldn’t tell what her connection to him was was, possibly she had helped with his court case. Joe and Pat kidnap Ann and steal her car, but the growing relationship between Joe and Ann troubles Pat. She works to keep Joe all hers, which is why I didn’t buy her change of heart at the film’s conclusion. There was a discussion after the film with Muller and Hunt, but having barely gotten into this screening, I was concerned I might not make the next one.

The weather augmented the experience of Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a good bit of rain to moisten those of us in line. The TCM staff earned major points for handing out umbrellas to those of us without. Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Kirk Douglas before the film. His vitality and enthusiasm showed a much greater spirit than his body allowed. This was the first time I had seen 20,000 Leagues. The script comes off dated and the production a bit stiff, but most of the effects remain impressive, especially in the context of its time.

Thanks to Muller’s Film Noir Foundation, Cry Danger has been restored and was well worth it. Dick Powell stars as Rocky Mulloy, incarcerated with his pal Danny for a murder and robbery he says they didn’t commit. Rocky gets sprung after five years when a Marine named Delong (Richard Erdman) confirms his alibi and then investigates who set him, not letting anybody get in his way. A bookie named Louis Castro (William Conrad) is at the top of his list. Muller spoke with co-star Rhonda Fleming before the film who talked about becoming an actress and not needing to screen test once the male executives got a look at her. More importantly, Muller revealed that many independently produced films have been lost because there was no one, like a studio, looking to preserve them. Though there were likely plenty not worth saving, it’s unfortunate that some real treasures have vanished.

My evening concluded with Young Frankenstein prefaced by a talk with director/co-writer Mel Brooks, who was so funny and filled with so many stories, like how Columbia lost the film to 20th Century because they balked at Mel shooting in black and white, I could have listen to him for a couple of hours instead of watching the film. The title character (co-writer Gene Wilder) is the grandson of the famous mad scientist who attempts to distance himself from the family. He even goes so far as pronouncing his last name as “Fronk-en-steen.” But he inherits the family castle and all its contents, which sparks an interest in his grandfather’s work to create life.

The results are so funny fans in the audience, who had already seen it multiple times, laughed at the beginning of scenes because they knew what was coming. The film’s success is due to a smart script brought to life by the talented cast, led by Wilder and featuring Marty Feldman (Igor, also pronounced Eye-gor), Peter Boyle (the Monster), Teri Garr (Inga), Cloris Leachman (Frau Blücher – cue the horses), Madeline Kahn (Elizabeth) Kenneth Mars (Inspector Kemp) and Gene Hackman (Harold, The Blind Man). It also evokes the look of the Universal horror films being spoofed.

At the halfway point in the festival, I had watched six films in roughly 28 hours. I considered the midnight screening of horror film Phase IV, but decided to get some rest for the early mornings and long days ahead.

Read Part 2 of my 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Diary.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://insomniacentertainment.com Luigi Bastardo

    What? After all that, you skipped out on PHASE IV? :)

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Watching movies is exhausting work. The Longest Day started the next morning at 9am, which meant an early morning, and I still needed to get a bite to eat before going to bed.

  • http://rwno.limewebs.com Warren Beatty

    Well, El B, something upon which we agree. I am, indeed, worried. You review of Young Frankenstein was top notch. I anxiously await your next installment.

    And The Longest Day is one of my favorites as well.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    We agree on more than YF, Warren, but your style undercuts the substance of your arguments, and that’s usually where you lose me.

    I should have the next installment before the work week is done.

  • Greg Barbrick

    I’m jealous! Young Frankenstein introduced by Mel Brooks himself is just too cool for words.

    Glad to know Warren Beatty is a Bicho fan. I’d like to hear his thoughts on MDNA next.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    You’ll be more so after Pt 2, Greg