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The 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival: Two Days of the (Movie) Cuckoo

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This is Part Two of my coverage of the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival.  Part One can be found here.

Day Three

Saturday began as many Saturdays from my extended youth did: with cartoons.  “Bugs Bunny’s 75th Birthday Bash” presented a collection of 10 shorts selected by Leonard Maltin and animation historian Jerry Beck.  They started with Tex Avery’s “A Wild Hare” (1940), considered the first official Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Even though a rabbits of a similar nature appeared in four earlier cartoons, “A Wild Hare” is where the definitive look and voice (by Mel Blanc) first appeared.  The short finds Bugs dealing with his longtime nemesis Elmer Fudd, who was voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan, a fact that had somehow inexplicably escaped me all these years until this weekend.  Elmer’s character apparently wasn’t settled yet because in the next cartoon we were shown, “Wabbit Twouble,” he’s fat and no longer a hunter.  Instead, he’s on vacation and pestered by Bugs.

In addition to Avery, the program featured work by directors Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and Chuck Jones.  Either by chance or design, a few cartoons were the second in a series.  “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” was Bugs’ second pairing with Cecil Turtle, “Bugs Bunny Rides Again” was the second Yosemite Sam, and “Rabbit Seasoning” was the second in the “Rabbit Season/Duck Season” trilogy.  It was fun laughing with a big crowd, and it was apparent how much Looney Tunes characters meant to many in attendance, as their first appearance would get a round of applause.

Deliverance seemed an odd choice for this festival.  While I don’t deny it deserves to be considered a classic, the situations in the film seem a bit rough for what amounted to a Saturday matinee and a crowd that skews middle age and older.  I wasn’t planning to watch it, but having director John Boorman and three of four main cast members (Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds, and Jon Voight) seemed like too good an experience to pass up.

Unfortunately, the TCMFF staffers scheduled The Donovan Affair, the first all-talkie from director Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures, down the street at another theater a half hour after the Deliverance program started.  What made Donovan so appealing was that it was having its West Coast premiere of the live re-creation of its soundtrack, which has been lost over time.  I was more interested in Donovan so it required a bit of planning, running back and forth, and my wife saving me a place.

What I saw of the Deliverance Q&A was very funny.  After the group received a standing ovation upon their arrival.  Boorman talked a bit about how he became director.  Voight stated he wasn’t sure about the role until his girlfriend at the time suggested he do it after he read it to her.  Reynolds said he and Beatty were just happy to get a job.  Beatty was hysterical.  He ribbed the panelists; missing cast mate Ronnie Cox, who was on the road as a folk singer; and the audience members for being there and what that revealed about them.  He also pointed out he wasn’t getting paid to promote and honor the film.

After listening to them for 15 minutes, leaving me 15 minutes to get to The Donovan Affair, I forced myself to leave Deliverance.  I ran down Hollywood Blvd. passed the tourists and hustlers, the tour guides and Jesus freaks, the costumed and the homeless, and got to the Egyptian with time to spare.  Too much time in fact as the set up took much longer than anticipated and the event started about 30 minutes late, which was a bit aggravating because I could have stayed for the entire Deliverance discussion.

The Donovan Affair is a comedic parlor mystery that gets the action rolling with the murder of Jack Donovan (John Roche) when the lights go out at a dinner party.  There are a few suspects, but their numbers dwindle after Inspector Killian (Jack Holt) shows up because his repeated re-enactment of the event ends up with a dead body every time the lights go out.

The viewing experience was a great novelty and most impressive was the sound effects man, even though errors on his computer would make noises.  The voice actors did a very good job matching the screen actors’ mouths.  Unfortunately, not all the voices matched the look of the characters and were a tad distracting.  Also, the story itself was rather weak as they focused more on the comedy instead of the mystery.  After it was over, I couldn’t remember if I had even seen the culprit’s motive.

Based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us, which Robert Altman would also adapt for his 1974 film, They Live By Night is Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, which author and film noir historian Eddie Muller declared the second best debut of the 1940s behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  Muller sang the praises of this “outlaw lovers on the run” film, pointing out it was the first to use a helicopter to shoot action as opposed to its traditional use in exposition.  He interviewed Susan Ray, Nick’s widow, before the film.  She told the audience when she met in Nick in the ’60s she hadn’t heard of his films so she assumed he was a bad director and They Live By Night was his personal favorite.

Three men break out of jail, bank robbers Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and Henry (Jay C. Flippen) and Bowie (Farley Granger), a man who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murder.  In order to fund his retrial back in Oklahoma, Bowie joins the men on heists.  While trying to lay low, the three hold up with Chicamaw’s brother, who runs a gas station. Chicamaw’s niece, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), is about Bowie’s age, and there’s no doubt they will be falling for each other since the film began with a superimposed title that reads, “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”  Bowie and Keechie run off.  He wants to do right but is plagued by all the wrong choices he has made.  It’s a good film, though it drags a bit.

Before The Seventh Seal, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Max von Sydow after an impressive show reel that even included his work in Flash Gordon and Strange Brew.  The legendary actor said he owes everything to director Ingmar Bergman.  They were one of the most successful actor-director pairings with von Sydow appearing in 11 Bergman films and they also worked together in the theater.  As an actor, von Sydow did so well in his portrayal of Jesus and priests and characters that dealt with matters of faith he was inundated with offers because of the limited imagination of agents and producers.

He also talked about not being Sidney Pollack’s first choice for Three Days of the Condor and how Woody Allen appeared intimidated by von Sydow.  They hadn’t met before the first day of working together on Hannah and Her Sisters and Allen seemed to hide in the morning until it was time to shoot.  In the few minutes von Sydow spoke, he came across as intelligent, humble, and very appreciative of the life he has lived.  This was the best part of the festival.  I didn’t plan to stay for the screening so I sat in the front row, next to Greg Proops.  Seeing the angle of the screen, I can’t fathom how anyone could watch a movie from that close.

I closed on Saturday with Airplane!  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared as Roger Murdock in a video introduction for guests: writer/directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker and star Robert Hays.  They talked about getting the film made and even pointed out some of the errors, such as where you can Hays in the dance sequence when a stuntman playing the same character gets thrown.  Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves had to be talked into appearing in the film by family members, but Leslie Nielsen got it right away.

Spoofing disaster films, specifically Zero Hour!, Airplane! tells the story of an airliner that appears doomed after the whole flight crew and some of the passengers get sick after having the fish.  Even though some of the gags and dialogue have become iconic in pop culture, the film remains very funny and its outlandishness hasn’t been too diminished over the 30-plus years since its release.  Watching it large number of fans, some of whom started laughing at what they knew was to come, augmented the enjoyment.

Sunday

No matter how much people love films, it’s impossible to see them all.  We’ve all got a few classics we haven’t seen that cause people to react with shock as they ask, “You haven’t seen that yet?!”  Thanks to the TCMFF programmers, I finally got around to seeing Gilda.  I am so thankful I did because it was the best film I saw at the festival.  Debra Winger introduced this south of the border film noir, which was captivating even before Rita Hayworth graced the screen with her loveliness.

Glenn Ford plays Johnny, a cheating gambler in Argentina that ends up working at an illegal casino, but that’s the least of his troubles.  His boss, Ballin Mundson (George Macready), is involved with Germans and even worse, he marries Gilda, a gorgeous woman that Johnny obviously knew before and it’s obvious didn’t end well.  Gilda grows bored quickly and finds plenty of men to entertain her.  Ballin is busy with all his operations and has Johnny keep an eye on her.

The script was compelling and took unexpected turns.  The only thing better looking than Rita Hayworth in Gilda was Rudolph Maté’s cinematography.  I couldn’t remember that last time I had seen such great use of light and shadow.  I fell in love with the visuals the same way every sap in the film fell for Gilda, and without having to worry about being letdown.

Scarecrow stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two drifters, ex-convict Max and former sailor Lionel.  They meet hitchhiking in this ’70s road movie that features some of the best and too much of the worst aspects of the New Hollywood era.  Max is determined to get to Pittsburgh so he can open up a carwash.  Lionel is headed to Detroit to see the son he never met.  They have a different approach to life.  Max leads with his fists and Lionel goes for the laughs.  Naturally, each learns something from the other’s approach to life, but usually not before making very wrong choices.  The story offered a good twist to Lionel’s storyline once they get to Detroit, but then took it too far over the top, causing the film as a whole to be unsatisfying.

I’d be curious to see the script because the scenes meander quite a bit, as if they all had the idea of what they wanted to accomplish and made it up as they went.  Director Jerry Schatzberg either needed to tighten up the script or tighten up the editing, but the actors get to play too much.  Also, Max is supposed to be the ladies’ man, but the combination of Pacino being better looking than Hackman and Max’s very abrasive personality make this hard to accept even in the freewheeling ’70s.

While the performances by Hackman and Pacino are compelling, they aren’t enough for me to recommend Scarecrow, my most disappointing choice of the festival.  Before the film, Schatzberg said a sequel had been written and he was going to talk to Al Pacino about it. Even if the film had been better, it’s hard to imagine what the story could be about considering how the characters end up.

My last selection of the festival was the ’70s political thriller Three Days of the Condor based on the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady.  Robert Osborn interviewed von Sydow, who played the assassin Joubert.  Since some of the same topics were covered, some of the same responses were given, but it didn’t lessen the delight of seeing the man speak

Robert Redford plays CIA researcher Joe Connor, who unknowingly stumbles across clandestine information that puts his life in danger.  He realizes this when everyone in his New York City office is assassinated while he is out getting lunch.  Joe reaches out to the local agency office and barely escapes another attempt on his life.

With nowhere to go and no one at the agency to trust, he kidnaps photographer Kathy (Faye Dunaway) and forces her to her apartment.  He spends the night; their arms entwined.  Joe is able to see into Kathy’s life and soul through her photographs and understands her more than her out-of-town boyfriend who is expecting her on a ski trip they had planned.  This unbelievably leads to Kathy having sex with Joe before she learns whether he’s telling the truth and is not a lunatic.  Assassins find Joe at Kathy’s place and the cat-and-mouse game continues as he tries to stay alive and uncover what is happening with Joubert on his trail.

Though plausibility is stretched with a researcher being able to outwit and outlast a number of field agents and assassins, and even though the MacGuffin is derived from liberal conspiracy propaganda, the twist at the end when Joe is cornered works well.  It is the most believable element of the film because it is so matter of fact.  However, I am not sure I would consider Three Days of the Condor a classic.

After 15 films in 72 hours, my 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival experience was complete.  Once again, I had a very enjoyable time, as I do every year.  However, this year I did find more films where I questioned why they were considered classics.  To be fair, I make an effort to see as many films as I can that I have never seen before.  Also, it must be tough for the programmers having to find different films and presentations each year with a dwindling collection of talent from the Classic Hollywood era available to appear.  I expect to be back next year and can’t wait to see what’s in store.

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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