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The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, Part One: Films, Families, and Fun

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AmazonI believe it was last year that I commented that the TCM Classic Film Festival was becoming the Comic-Con for classic-film watchers/nerds, and this year it seemed a more accurate description as the festival grew in terms of the number of screenings and events held and possibly attendees.  While I haven’t seen any official numbers, it certainly seemed like there were more people in theaters and wearing badges on Hollywood Blvd.

Day Zero

Another way it reminds me of Comic-Con is now there are events taking place on Wednesday, a Preview Night of sorts, particularly for those plugged into social media.  TCM held a meet-up for those with media credentials; some fans met by the pool of the Roosevelt Hotel, a major hub of activity during the festival; and Warner Archive hosted a gathering where attendees got free drinks and free DVD cases, though some may have been more fortunate than myself and gotten the movie that came with it.  They are nice ways to meet and chat with people before the whirlwind of the festival starts when there’s less time to interact.

Day One

Although there were a couple of presentations during the day, the festival officially kicked off with the Welcome Party at Club TCM.  It was already chaotic before things began as a large throng of people and a dog that was treated like a doll waited to get in.  When only one door was opened, a few voiced their agitation.  A worker opened another door and many made use of it.  Aside from a dogcatcher, a fire marshal was needed because I am pretty sure the room was overcapacity.

Once Robert Osborne came out and greeted the crowd, many shrieked with excitement at the rock star of classic films while mobile devices became active and held in the air.  Rather than deal with the madness, I headed for the exit.  I opted for dinner at the Hooters across from the TCL Chinese IMAX where Oklahoma! was going to be screened so I could watch people enter the red carpet.  There was Shirley Jones and festival guest Maureen O’Brien.  Also, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and Leonard Maltin, both of whom would be appearing throughout the festival conducting introductions and conversations.

A major programming theme this year was “Family in the Movies: The Ties That Bind,” and my first two screening certainly fit that bill.  Walter Lang’s Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) is a quaint film about the Gilbreth clan led by efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, Sr. (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy), although in reality Lillian and the family just let Frank think he’s in charge.

Set in the 1920s, the story’s main conflict finds Ann (Jeanne Crain), a senior in high school, clashing with the ideas of her conservative father.  Frank Sr. is a bit eccentric, but a man who obviously cares for his family, and Webb strikes a good balance between silly and serious.  What I most enjoyed is how the plot, which is mostly predictable, takes an unexpected turn towards the end.  It elevated the story and fortified the idea of family.

A not-so-loving family is featured in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), winner of four Academy Awards including Best Actress for Olivia de Havilland.  The title character is Catherine Sloper, a very shy, plain (or as plain as de Havilland and the make-up team could make her) young woman.  She lives with her widowed father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who never hesitates to make his disappointment in her known and frequently points out she’s not as good as her mother.

At a party, she makes the acquaintance of Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who soon comes courting, but her father believes this is solely due to her money and makes it known to her.  As Catherine’s relationships become tested, the true nature of the characters is revealed.  De Havilland’s Oscar is well deserved because she gives an impressive performance as Catherine evolves from a meek and naive girl into the strong woman she becomes.  Clift is good in the role, but as I watched I didn’t completely buy him as a 19th Century man.

Day Two

The festival has a good system for line management, but it requires attendees pay attention.  They hand out numbers about 45 minutes before a screening starts and then suggest people come back 15 minutes before the screening, approximately when the line will be let in.  This allows people to stretch and grab a quick bite.  It only becomes an issue when people move into the vacated space even though they are just going to have to move back to let folks back in.   This happened before The World of Henry Orient when people with numbers in the 70s stood where those in the 20s were going to be.  It took a bit for the TCMFF staff to figure out space needed to be created and needed to start with those in the back of the line, but they eventually got it sorted out.

George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964) seems slightly misnamed since the story is about the friendship of two teenage girls, Gil (Merrie Spaeth) and Val (Tippy Walker).  The film presents a weird, uneven story as Gil deals with her absentee parents by delving into a world of imagination.  As she and Val play in the park one afternoon, they happen upon concert pianist Henry (Peter Sellers) kissing Mrs. Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss).  Henry attempts to woo Stella into bed and crosses paths with the girls a few times, which freaks him out.

Gil develops a crush on him, but doesn’t know how to act on it.  Val’s mother, Isabel (Angela Lansbury, who looked so gorgeous in her party dress it’s a wonder she never became a pin-up girl), discovers Val’s diary and wonders if anything inappropriate is going on.  She goes to give Henry a piece of her mind and ends up giving him a piece of something else, which is a habit of hers.  Although the pacing is a bit clunky and it was disappointing to see such little comedy from Sellers, the story’s resolution somewhat salvages things, although I wish I had chosen a different film.

Margaret O’Brien was on hand to talk about Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  She was sweet as she talked about how great her mother was at managing her career and what it took to be one of the best criers on the MGM lot along with June Allyson.  It’s too bad her character Tootie is such a terrible little brat in the film, but then that’s more personality than the rest of the characters.

With the 1904 World’s Fair about to commence, Esther (Judy Garland) is a young girl infatuated with new neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake) solely because he’s good looking.  After a house party, she gets him to stay behind hoping to kiss him, but her plans don’t work out.  On Halloween night when all the children pull terrible pranks, Tootie comes home injured and blames John.  Esther becomes enraged and goes to his house where she beats and bites him.  After learning Tootie lied, which surely can’t be the first time the kid has done so, Esther returns to apologize.  Instead of being angry, John kisses her, which is completely unbelievable since Esther has proven herself to be a nut, and John is so good looking he could get any woman in town, certainly one more rational, and to be honest, better looking than Garland.

Other than a few good songs by Garland, the film was a disappointment because screenwriters Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe did such a poor job.  The characters are one-dimensional and many unlikable.  The lovers are superficial and their feelings barely credible, so who cares about the eventual happy ending.  There’s also a subplot involving the father getting a job in New York, but the entire family is too selfish to go.  When he discovers how upset everyone is he decides to stay, yet if he cared about their feeling why didn’t he inquire before telling them he was taking it?  Making the film even more unbearable was a selfish, ignorant woman who took pictures of the screen throughout.  Unfortunately, no staffers or people next to her got her to stop.

For great writing and acting, I thankfully saw Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter (1968) next.  In a sequel of sorts, Peter O’Toole returns to the role of King Henry II, which he played previously in Becket, in a fictional account of the machinations to pick the heir to his throne.  He wants his youngest son, Prince John (Nigel Terry), while his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), who Henry keeps imprisoned, wants their oldest son, Prince Richard (Anthony Hopkins).  Meanwhile, middle son Geoffrey (John Castle) tries to find his place in all of this.  There is quite a bit of scheming, lies, and vicious wordplay are everyone tries to come out on top.  O’Toole and Hepburn create one of the best on-screen love-hate relationships in cinema; it’s right up there with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mel Brooks spoke before Blazing Saddles, the lone film not related to families I saw during the first two days.   I imagine all who had seen it before  weren’t surprised to learn quite a few Warner Brothers executives didn’t know what they had with the movie.  Some thought it was too vulgar, overestimating the tastes of American audiences, though I wonder how modern audiences would react now to the racial and sexual humor.  Surely, an outraged hashtag or two would appear on Twitter.  Mel also talked about Gig Young’s brief time playing the Waco Kid, cut short due to Young’s alcoholism, before Gene Wilder replaced him.

Mel called Blazing Saddles the funniest movie of all time, and it’s certainly got plenty of laughs.  Set in 1874, State Attorney General Heddy (Hedley!) Lamarr (Harvey Korman) plots to get rich by swindling the residents of Rock Ridge.  Playing on their prejudices, he sends Bart (Cleavon Little), an African-American, to become the sheriff.  They hate him at first, but he’s the smartest man in the movie, and is able to get them on his side as they take on Hedley’s hired men.

Brooks and his team of writers and performers do anything for a laugh, from breaking the fourth wall to breaking through studio walls as the final fight scene spills onto a set where a dance number is being filmed.  The gay insults grow excessive and come off as mean more often than funny.  Heddy ends up leaving the studio and ends up at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater to watch Blazing Saddles, which drew a large cheer from the crowd.

Eraserhead closed out the night and continued the family theme.  While not a classic movie in the traditional sense, it’s certainly a classic in terms of midnight movies and cult films.  Patton Oswalt welcomed us to “Coachella for shut-ins” and offered up some tidbits and trivia about the film, which took five years to make and owes a great debt to Sissy Spacek’s financial assistance.  Her husband Jack Fisk is a childhood friend of Lynch and he plays The Man in the Planet, who is seen working levers.

Rather than a straightforward narrative, a fascinating collection of sounds and visuals are used to tell the story of Henry (Jack Nance), as he deals with becoming a father, although his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) says the hospital is “still not sure it is a baby,” nor will the viewer be upon seeing the creature.  The film can be disquieting, gross, uncomfortable, and many other things related to, though not always thought of regarding parenthood.

Eraserhead is a difficult and challenging film to decipher and it requires the desire to do so.  I saw five audience members give up and leave and I am almost certain there were more that escaped my notice.  I hadn’t seen the film in about 25 years and enjoyed the experience because even when I didn’t understand what’s going on, I had full confidence Lynch had a purpose in what I was experiencing.  I was glad the TCM programmers took a risk and screened it.

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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