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A look at my last two days at the festival.

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival: It Began with Something ‘Awful’

Saturday, Apr. 8

When attending the fest’s midnight movie the night before, I usually skip the next day’s first morning round of films, which was a disappointment this year because I have yet to see Red River. Instead, my day began later with the World Premiere restoration of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), another in the festival’s “Divorce/Remorse” series.

The Awful Truth finds Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as Jerry and Lucy Warriner heading toward divorce because of misunderstandings only to inevitably realize they were meant to be together, even after they get involved with other people. Ralph Bellamy plays Dan Leeson, the first of two roles where he plays a fiance to one of Grant’s ex-wives only to lose her back to Grant. It’s a tad hard to believe that a duo capable of such great wit as Jerry and Lucy couldn’t have a sensible conversation, but then where’s the fun in that?

During the film’s introduction, it was revealed McCarey wanted the actors to improvise, but Grant didn’t like that way of working and offered to buy his way out of the film or play a lesser role, which is surprising because of how natural Grant’s performance is. McCarey won an Oscar for Best Director, but was disappointed that it wasn’t for his other effort this year, the dramatic Make Way for Tomorrow.

Adapted from Broadway, Bye Bye Birdie (1963) is a musical that tapped into the Elvis craze by having rock and roll singer Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) get drafted into the Army to the disappoint of his many fans. Dick Van Dyke (in his film debut) and Paul Lynde reprise their roles as struggling songwriter / biochemist Albert Peterson and fertilizer salesman Harry MacAfee, respectively. Ann-Margret is a standout right from the get-go with her iconic performance of the title song, written for the film. Another standout is Janet Leigh albeit for negative reasons due to the unfortunate casting of her playing Rosie, a Hispanic character.

The film has a convoluted plot reminiscent of a sitcom that finds Albert hoping to get his song performed by Conrad on The Ed Sullivan Show. That success will allow him to marry Rosie in spite of his bothersome mother (Maureen Stapleton, who was the same age as Van Dyke), but of course, complications arise as show time approaches. In addition to the title song, “Put On a Happy Face” and “Kids” are great songs. The rest are forgettable.

Best in Show (2000) cast members Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock, and Fred Willard were on hand to offer stories about the making of director Christopher Guest’s classic mockumentary about competitors in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Calling the editor the star of the picture, they explained that Guest shoots the close-ups then moves out to the master shot. It was stunning to learn that Piddock and Willard’s scenes were all shot in one day. The film remains hysterical and watching it with a packed house is a great reminder that comedies are the best to experience with a group.

From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Black Narcissus (1947) was another nitrate print shown at the fest, and another underwhelming experience. I was expecting to be wowed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s work in Technicolor, but it didn’t live up to the hype. It did look good but no where close to the claims that were being made. Also, disappointing was the story which is unintentionally silly and plays out like an over-the-top soap opera.

Anglican nuns set up a hospital and school in the Himalayas. However, being closer to Heaven doesn’t squash the Earthly desires of two when a pseudo love triangle forms between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who joined the church to escape her disappointing love life; rugged British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar); and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who soon reveals herself to be insane. The story makes negative comments about British colonialism, the Anglican church, and women being weakened by their emotions, although it’s not clear if it was all intentional.

Director Edgar Wright discussed the creation of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) with writers Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, and director John Landis. They sure made to point out the errors in the fest’s film guide, such as Landis directed the demo reel and the film made more than $7 million. The writing trio had been performing as Kentucky Fried Theater at the University of Wisconsin and then in Los Angeles. Having no success with the studios, they created a demo reel that was screened at LA’s Nuart Theatre, where Kim Jorgensen so enjoyed what he saw he helped raise money to have the film made and received an Executive Producer credit.

KFM is a series of sketches spoofing film and television with over a third of the run time devoted to A Fistful of Yen, a parody of Enter the Dragon. It remains absolutely one of the wackiest films ever made, though some may question the juvenile nature of the sexual and racial material. In particular, “Danger Seekers” has a racist gag that even Landis acknowledged was uncomfortable. I was surprised it didn’t get a negative reaction during the screening.

Sunday, Apr. 9

Douglas Sirk’s Lured (1947) is a fun genre-bending thriller starring Lucille Ball as Sandra Carpenter, an American abroad who helps Scotland Yard catch the “Poet Killer.” The fiend uses personal ads to meet his victims and her friend Lucy was a victim. Things become complicated when Sandra becomes romantically entangled with Robert Fleming (George Sanders), who is a suspect. Ball shows she could have had a career in the movies if she hadn’t gone into television. The writing stumbles a bit by having the killer act so guilty as if to signal the audience who the bad guy is.

With the passing of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds one day apart this past December, Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1990) had an extra poignancy before the room got dark. Carrie Fisher wrote the novel and then the screenplay about mother (Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (Meryl Strep) actresses dealing with their addictions and each other. The film is amusing but feels too light for its subject and talent attached.

Previously a play, William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) is a drama that takes place over the course of a day in a New York police station. The officers have to deal with an embezzler, burglars, and a shoplifter (Lee Grant who introduced the film). The main thrust of the plot is Detective Jim McLeod’s (Kirk Douglas) pursuit of an abortion doctor. McLeod has an obsession with criminals because his father was one and the effect it had on his mother. Ironically, this leads to his own criminal behavior when it comes to suspects, including the doctor, which will have personal ramifications. Unfortunately Douglas played the role so over the top in the character’s near-constant state of rage, he was a distraction and diminished the film.

Much more interesting than the film was Lee Grant. Although the role was her film debut and earned her an Oscar nomination, her life is much more fascinating. She was blacklisted for refusing to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, between the ages of 22 and 36, prime years for an actress. She eventually went into directing after taking a workshop at AFI.

I skipped the final round of films and the closing party to get back to real life and my own bed. Another great weekend of movie watching in the books.

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

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